What struck me most was the change in approach between series 3 and 5. The former was more about Hank, as a writer (and teacher) and fell very much into the almost-but-never-quite passe genres of so-called dirty realism and campus fiction. He is a self-regarding frustrated writer who looks for comfort and insight in the brief pleasures available to such people when they are attractive and witty. It was funny, but there was a melancholy hanging over the show that it seemed unable to dodge but at the same time unwilling to accept.
By the fifth series, however, the show has morphed into more of a sitcom, a new millennium's version of The Honeymooners, with a bit of The Life Of Riley and a little Love That Bob thrown in. Thus we have the classic two couples scenario, but they've been doubled: Hank is not Ralph Kramden, he's too smart and less self-deluded for that, but if you put him together with Karen's new husband Richard (Jason Beghe) he gets closer. Karen is very much Alice though. Similarly, Evan Handler's Runcle, who is often the real comic focus of the show, is doubled with the excellent Stephen Tobolowsky to create a single Ed Norton for Pamela Adlon's Marcy to shriek about.
That morphing is made easier by the switch of the focus from Hank's writing books to the film industry, which allows freer reign for sexual sitcomming that often comes close to Feydeau farce. It also gets the best out of Handler, to the extent that Daniel Benzali gets to play a brilliant cameo as the agent Runcle would be when he grows up. This is not to say the darkness is completely gone: every time Hank's daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) comes on stage we are reminded of that, in case we needed reminding.
The fifth series ends on an exceedingly dark note, courtesy of Natalie Zea, and this is where the in-flight synchronicity was awesome, as I was watching her alternately as Winona in Justfied and here as the New York-based Carrie (a light nod to Sex In the City there), who starts off as a breath of realistic air in Hank's life, and ends up as a bunny-boiler. The scene where, at a dinner party with the other two couples, she realises Hank doesn't love her, and announces she 'gave him her ass', which he shouldn't have taken if he didn't, is spectacular.
Zea is brilliant in this context, and looking back at Justified's first season I appreciated her a little more. In fact, I found both her and Joelle Carter's performances more nuanced than I had the first time around—Carter's is hidden under a surface sexiness and Zea's behind a surface of mundanity, both of which they manage to undercut, at least on second viewing.In terms of ensemble cast, Justified is hard to beat, and if not comedy, there are very Elmore Leonard-esque moments of irony in every show.
I liked that opening year of Justified even more the second time around, and I found Californication more fun with series five. Even if I already feel Natscha McElhone's disappointment in series six.